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Will the Baltic States become a new “trouble spot” between Russia and the EU?

Currently many people in the Baltic states are worried that their region may be turned into a battlefield. The local authorities keep warning about some “rebels” that are plotting some mutiny and about Russian “little green men” that may soon infiltrate into the territories of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In the meantime, they are enlarging NATO’s presence in their territories as well as own armies. This all is giving rise to some paranoid fears among the population.

A separatist? Answer for it!

Some experts in the Baltic States keep warning about a threat of separatism in the region. The key suspects are mostly Russian speaking Latgale in Latvia and Ida-Virumaa in Estonia as well as once Polish Vilniaus kraštas in Lithuania. And though not perceived as real, this threat is still scary enough to urge the local authorities to punish those daring even to mention the possibility of autonomy in the region.

One example was Latgale, a region bordering on Russia, Belarus and Lithuania and a home for minorities of Latgalians, Byelorussians, Jews and Russians. The percentage of Latvians here is very low, so, Latgale has always been like a stepdaughter for Riga. Over the last 25 years, 25.7% of the local population has emigrated because of economic decline and unemployment. In 2012, oppositionist Vladimir Linderman urged the Latvian authorities to give Latgale additional powers so it could care for its own self. They in Riga reacted by laying a criminal charge against the “rebel” and crushing his “separatist” moods in the bud.

But following the events in Crimea and Donbass, they began receiving news that some “separatists” in Latgale were encouraging locals to join Russia! In Nov 2015, Speaker of Krāslavas Duma Gunars Upenieks told Diena that a group of activists were actively campaigning for Latgale’s accession to Russia.

“They are visiting homes, schools and other public institutions. They are even said to have offered money to some officials. I have discussed this situation with colleagues from other districts but we have no authority to interfere. I wonder what the local police are doing!”Upenieks said.

For the Latgalians, this interview was a surprise. Even Upenieks’s colleagues were indignant to hear such tales from him. In fact, there is little – if any – social basis for separatism in Latgale: with most of its active workers having fled to Europe or Russia, that region is now represented by either pensioners or teens. You also need a lot of support (money, arms, booklets) for an effective separatist campaign. In poor destroyed Latgale this is hardly possible.

Very soon Upenieks took his words back, saying it was just panic. But somebody obviously needed that panic as rumors about separatism continued: in Jan 2015 someone began posting maps and symbols of Latgalian People’s Republic on Facebook. The Latvian police hurried to say that such steps served the geopolitical interests of Russia. Later, they said they had detained the “separatists” but refused to make their names public.

Mechanism of provocation

This was followed by Internet calls saying that the United States has bred all kinds of Nazis in the Baltic states, who freely march in streets and even have votes in parliaments: “Very soon they will start killing you, like they are doing in Ukraine. There will first be one incident, as was the case in Odessa, but then we will face mass killings. The goal is known – to involve Russia in a new conflict. So, in order to survive, we need to unite! You are welcome to join our patriotic groups in VKontakte.” The authors of such articles are unknown but the key suspects are Latvian special services. But why are they doing this? Either they just wish to improve their image by disclosing some “anti-national plot” or... or this may be an attempt to create a new trouble spot in the Baltic region – a step that is hardly coming from Russia.

Similar though smaller attempts are also being undertaken in Lithuania. In Jan 2015, somebody opened a website of Vilno People’s Republic. As you may know, Vilno is the old name of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The website said that the city was given to Lithuania by Stalin and urged people to vote for its secession from Lithuania. Since in Lithuania there are few Russians, the role of “fifth column” there has been given to local Poles, who are strongly restricted in their right to speak their native language. According to Gazeta Wyborcza, the “Vilno separatists” may be guided by Polish nationalist Bartosz Bekier and his Falanga organization. In 2013, Bekier went to Syria to meet with Bashar Assad, later, he expressed support for rebels in Donbass. The Polish newspaper alleged that not only Poles but also Byelorussians and Russians living in Vilno region were ready to rise in the name of Vilno People’s Republic. The mysterious “separatists” have also expressed support for Donetsk and Lugansk, which has given the Lithuanian authorities a ground to allege that this all is Moscow’s conspiracy.

If you read the fresh news in the Baltic region, you may think you are in a besieged fortress and very soon will see some “little green men” infiltrating into the territories of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The articles claim that Moscow’s agents are everywhere to kindle separatist moods in the region. As a result, they in Vilnius have decided to restart military drafts, while they in Riga are mobilizing reserve forces.

Reserve forces, be ready!

Today, according to Lithuania’s National Security Ministry, the country has 7,910 contract soldiers, 4,445 reserve volunteers and 219 cadets. Since 2008, the Lithuanian army has been professional but now it will resume general calls. The first group of 19-26-year-olds will be drafted in Sept 2015. This may also concern university graduates under 38. The ministry is going to conscript 3,000-3,500 men a year on a draw basis.

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In Latvia, general calls were cancelled in 2004. As a result, today the Latvian army is far from being NATO’s strongest forces and has 5,100 soldiers, 5 tanks, 25 all-wheel drive vehicles, 442 antitank missile systems as well as 8,000 national guards. Recently Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis suggested enlarging the army and the Government approved his initiative. The authorities are planning to adopt a law on mobilization stipulating obligatory participation in all military exercises. Some reservists have already received draft notices. Among the potential draftees are 2,500 men who were demobilized after 2008. Almost 1/5 of them have experience of participation in NATO missions. The Latvian Defense Ministry hopes that some of them will wish to stay in the army. Those who have no military experience are encouraged to join the Zemessardze group as volunteers. By 2020, Zemessardze is expected to have 20,000 men, while Jaunsardze youth group will involve as many as 16,000 youths.

Recently Latvia’s Interior Ministry and National Fire and Rescue Inspection drafted recommendations they are going to give to the population in case of war. They instruct people who to pack a bag, stock up on food, how to act in a conflict zone. The Latvians are recommended to leave their homes if they sense any danger. If this is impossible, they are advised to pack a bag, where they should put money, documents, a bank card, a mobile phone, a radio, a knife, an ax, a lighter, medicines, food and some other essentials. The next step is to inform the police about suspicious armed people who look different from locals.

This spring the United States sent to the Baltic region a total of 3,000 soldiers for the Atlantic Resolve maneuvers. On Mar 9 the Americans sent to Riga M1A2 Abrams tanks and M2A3 Bradley armored vehicles. They also sent their 3rd infantry division – the force that fought during WWII, in Korea, in Iraq in 1191 and 2003.

The Germans are also there. On Apr 15 Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said that her country was going to send to the Baltic region some 400 soldiers, who would stay there for 3-5 months. The FMs of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are unanimous that NATO troops must stay in their region for a long time. “We remember what happened to American arms in Afghanistan. Why are theygoing to keep them here? To use against Russia? Supposing they will but they from Estonia are reporting that at similar exercises there people in Estonian uniform but not speaking Estonian are learning how to fight in the streets,” says member of the Riga Duma Ruslan Pankratov.

This is actually frightening, especially given the atmosphere of growing hatred in the country. Latvian human rights activists Einars Graudins said recently that formerly the country’s populated was divided into Latvians, who were good people, and Russians, who were bad guys. “Today even the Latvians have been divided into categories. If things changes the way they did in June 1941 in the Soviet Union or in 2014 in Donbass, we will witness bloodshed here. It will be the blood of Russian activists and those Latvians who will try to stand up for them. Our society is ready for this. All those speaking Russian are strangers here no matter who they are – Russians, Chuvashes, Byelorussians and Tatars. Annushka has already spilled the oil,” Graundins said.

His fears are well grounded. One proof is the recent story, when some Kaspars Mezavilks posted onpeticijas.com a call to stop the Russian fifth column in Latvia. “It is clear that if Russia launches an aggression against Latvia and other states, our non-citizens (Latvia is home to 260,000 Russian-speaking non-citizens – edit.) may join the enemy. Are we ready for this? It is time foe all those caring for their homeland to do something! We must protect our public from pro-Moscow forces,” says Mezavilks’s petition.

As many as 1,600 people have already joined this message, with some of them saying things like this, “Five years in jail for each non-citizens!” “Send all Russians out of the country!” “Camps in Liepaja and Salaspils, was that not enough for them?”

“Just look, those 1,600 people have not just supported the petition but specified their names, That is, they are in the so-called pre-active phase. If you give them arms, they will organize a new Salaspils,” says Ruslan Pankratov.

No surprise that the Russian community is worried and has asked the police to punish Mezavilks. They in the police have said that they would not do it. “Of course, one may perceive this petition differently, but, in purely legal terms, it has no corpus delicti. It contains no calls to act against a specific ethnic group. So, there is no ground to say that Mezavilks is trying to kindle ethnic strife,” say the special services.

Thus, the Baltic region is gradually being turned into a powder room. The Ukrainian conflict has spoiled Russian-EU trade-economic ties and has led to a war of sanctions. This is good for the United States, who is eager to establish transatlantic trade and investment partnership with the EU, a pact that will allow the Americans to swallow the European economy. But more and more sensible Europeans are beginning to warn that Europe will not be able to prosper without close ties with Russia.

Following the logic of “conspiracy theory” proponents, the United States may try to provoke a new conflict with a view to “sink” EU-Russia relations. The best place for such a conflict is the Baltic region – the only territory that is part to both NATO and the EU and that has a border with Russia. It is also home to lots of Russians, who suffer from discrimination and Russophobia.

US experts believe that this scenario is quite possible. “It is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which either U.S. or Russian action could set in motion a chain of events at the end of which American and Russian troops would be killing each other. Imagine, for example, an uprising of ethnic Russians in Estonia or Latvia, either spontaneously or at the instigation of Russian security services; a heavy-handed response by that nation’s weak police and military forces; an appeal by ethnic Russians to Putin to honor his "Putin Doctrine” declaration during the liberation of Crimea that he would come to the defense of ethnic Russians wherever they were attacked; an attempted replay of the hybrid war against Ukraine; and a confrontation with the battalion of six hundred American or NATO forces now on regular rotations through the Baltic states,” Graham Allison and Dimitri K. Simes say in their “Russia and America: Stumbling to War” article. And all this cannot but worry us.

 Vyacheslav Samoylov, EADaily analyst in the Baltic region 

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